3D Printing: What’s the Status?
When 3D printing first arrived on the scene a few years ago, some in-plants stepped boldly forward, invested in 3D printers, and promoted it as a new service. A few years on, In-plant Impressions caught up with three of them to talk to about where 3D printing is today, and how they see it fitting into their future plans.
One point all three managers stressed right from the start was that even if the 3D printing itself didn’t turn into the revenue stream they had hoped for, it did have one universal benefit: it brought people into their shops.
“I would say it’s a benefit any time we can get people to physically come in and become familiar with our services by visiting our locations,” says Steven Dimond, managing director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) CopyTech, in Cambridge, Mass. “We can advertise until our face turns blue, but having people actually visiting the shop is always a good thing.” And that’s what 3D printing did for his 19-employee operation.
Nick Haddad, systems administrator and technologist at The Print Shop, which serves Algonquin College of Applied Arts and Technology in Ottawa, Ontario, echoed that experience, noting, “People are already looking for 3D printing services, whether at their local makerspace or online. If you have it at the college, by default it will attract them for sheer convenience. And then they can learn the other benefits they might get. For example, the engineering students otherwise wouldn’t know of your print shop since they don’t print anything, but if they can interact with you at the 3D level, now you have more customers. And maybe their friend needs something printed, or they get a project that requires a poster. Why not engage with people who have no other reason to interact with you?” Haddad’s in-plant has a full-time staff of seven, plus shares a pool of additional employees with the campus bookstore.
Meanwhile in Brookings, S.D., Bob Carlson, manager of Printing Services at South Dakota State University (SDSU), capitalized on the draw of 3D printing and opened a campus Imaging Center attached to his in-plant where he installed wide-format and 3D printing equipment. The space was designed to give students and faculty a place to collaborate and experiment, with access to the print technologies they need. While he notes that there is a charge to use the machines, he keeps the costs low by offering lower quality machines in the Imaging Center versus the higher-quality digital presses in the adjoining in-plant.
“It brought people in — I’m amazed how many people I run into who don’t realize we have an onsite print shop,” says Carlson, whose operation employs 15 full-time staff. “3D is also great for tours with first year students coming in.”
Beyond the Draw
While bringing people into the in-plant who might not otherwise know of its existence is a nice benefit, it isn’t the only — or even major — reason these shops first invested in the technology. These early adopters were hoping for new ways to serve their communities and provide a more complete range of services.
For Carlson, the deciding factor coincided with the opening of the Imaging Center, with more than 3,000 sq. ft. of space dedicated to not only the print technologies, but also stations where students can spread out to work.
“We bought a bunch of design equipment to go into the space, which could be open later hours for students and faculty use,” he says. “At that time, we bought four MakerBot 3D printers — that was our lead-in to 3D printing.”
For MIT, however, the entry point was very different. Dimond notes that it was another on-campus organization, Project Manus, that approached the in-plant, rather than the other way around. The group had already installed 3D printers in several spaces around campus, but found they needed someone to take over the daily management, as well as to handle the payment.
“They wanted an opportunity to direct students to a service center, where they could at least recoup some of their costs,” says Dimond. “They didn’t want to get involved in payments, and they approached us because we are open five days a week from 8 a.m to 5:30 p.m., which was an ideal situation for students to pick up finished 3D print projects. They offered to let us place the equipment here. We didn’t have to pay for any of the printers or supplies. They paid for all of it. All they asked was that we manage the printers and output, and charge the students as they come to pick them up. That’s how we got into it.”
Haddad took yet another approach. He and someone from another department were interested in the maker movement and wanted to provide a space on campus. The school already had high-end 3D printers in a research lab, but they wanted to allow the wider student population to experience the benefits of 3D printing. That said, while the in-plant helped get the initial systems and training in place, Haddad has since stepped back.
“Today I’m not as involved as I was before. I passed it off to them,” he notes. “I trained them on how to use it, and now they are using it for their own research projects, but there was a point where I was running everything myself.”
When the in-plant was handling the operations, Haddad says it had a decent mix of student projects as well as work for customers outside the college. The outside projects have fallen off without his oversight, but he hopes at some point to take a more active role again to once more grow that business.
As a segment that is still very much evolving and growing, where will 3D go next, and where does it fit into the long-term in-plant strategy?
“This is not like a fad, and is definitely growing,” says Haddad. “When we first launched a website that would receive orders from customers, demand was going up and up and up — we had to turn it off because there was so much demand it was almost overwhelming. 3D printing is a tool people use to solve their problems faster than previous methods.”
For in-plants in particular, he says, if you can test it out, why wouldn’t you? Students, faculty, and outside customers are all going to be looking for 3D print options, so why not get involved and keep that work — and revenue — in-house, he notes.
MIT doesn’t take any outside 3D print work, Dimond says, but the demand just inside the school has increased to an average of 50 projects per month, which he sees as continuing to grow. Right now, he says, the 3D printers are spread between several locations, with the in-plant managing the units under its roof, but not the ones placed in various other departments — although he can see that changing over time, bringing 3D printing under a managed print structure at some point in the future.
“We try to make the effort to collaborate, but I also feel like ... this type of work should be under our control,” says Dimond. “Often these projects are run by students who graduate every four years, so it becomes more attractive for us to take over management, rather than go through retraining and renewing all their responsibilities every couple of years.”
3D might not be right for every in-plant, however, says Carlson. Much of it depends on what the in-plant’s purpose is, and what kind of reception it gets from the organization. At SDSU, it has worked out well — students and faculty alike were interested in finding new ways to use the technology, and at times Carlson finds them coming in not just to work on class assignments, but also to produce their own side projects.
“We love to bring students through the in-plant to see how presses are run and see what goes on beyond ‘here’s a digital file,’” he says, which in turn allows them to better appreciate what goes into producing a finished product. 3D is an extension of that, allowing students to better understand how products are put together and how they work, and giving them a cost-effective way to experiment. For Carlson, this relationship alone is worth having 3D as part of the portfolio even if it’s not a revenue generator for some operations.
Charging for 3D Printing
Speaking of revenue, finding a way to effectively charge for 3D printing, while keeping the costs low enough to make it attractive to the end users, can be a challenge. Traditional print pricing doesn’t necessarily carry over directly, so each of these in-plants had to experiment to find the right balance.
While Algonquin College of Applied Arts and Technology isn’t currently charging for 3D projects since the in-plant has stepped back from the management of the presses, both MIT and SDSU have found that when it comes to pricing, charging by the piece is the most effective manner. In both cases, the time to create the piece and the cost of materials are taken into account. Users can choose between a quicker print time — which uses less material to keep costs down at the expense of quality — or a slower print time, which yields stronger, more high-quality pieces, but also carries a higher price tag.
“We came up with a cost per hour, and included the materials with it,” says Haddad, who notes he wanted to keep it simple. “We didn’t want the cost to be stifling creativity, or students pushing off what they really want. Basically, the first hour on the machine is $25, then we cut it to $15 the second hour, then $5 per hour every hour after that. Some builds are long, but most are a done within the hour, with the average being 15-20 minutes.”
“We went back and forth on a few different ways to charge the students,” says Dimond. “We settled on having them pay for time, and they are also paying for the filament or material used on that project. The reason we decided to do that was that it gives students more opportunity to dictate how expensive it will be.”
The final advice of all three for other in-plant managers is simple: don’t be afraid to try. Dimond, Haddad, and Carlson all recommend others start small. Many of the entry models can start at just a few thousand dollars. SDSU and Algonquin College use MakerBot devices, while MIT uses Dremel 3D printers. These machines are robust enough to stand up to moderate use in an in-plant environment, and are an excellent way to test the proverbial waters.
Once an in-plant proves that 3D printing is a viable revenue stream, it can move to mid- and high-end 3D printers, increasing the speed and quality. In fact, a number of those vendors will be exhibiting at PRINTING United in Dallas this October 23-25. The show will be a good chance to see some of these machines in action, as well as ask questions and get ideas from experts on ways these devices can help revitalize an in-plant’s offerings.